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Plating: It's All in the Sauce

When it comes down to it, sauces are just liquids served along with your main dish. It seems easy to make desserts look nice, but thoughtfully plating your main course is an important part of presenting beautiful meals. As we decide how to arrange our food, we tend only to focus on the colors and textures of the main dishes and sides. The truth is, sauces are an overlooked tool for not only making dinner plates look good, but for enhancing every bite, too.

Why sauce?

Famed food scientist and historian Harold McGee calls sauces distillations of desire. Since their first mentions in Asian and European recipes (dating to the 14th century), people have used available ingredients to make sauces that help flavor the food they serve...which back then was sometimes pretty bland.

Today, culinary schools devote entire semesters to the mastery of sauces, and in finer restaurants across the world there are chefs whose nightly mission is to make the kitchen's sauces, and only the kitchen's sauces. They're that important.

Which sauce, when?

If past attempts at making homemade gravy went wrong, sauces of any sort may make you skittish.

Thankfully, they come in all flavors, consistencies and degrees of difficulty. Some recipes, like simple pan sauces, invite creativity by leaving the selection of herbs or wine to use up to the cook. Others, like cheese-based sauces, require a bit more attention.

Here's a mini crash-course for saucing-up your meals.

Basic Sauces

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  • Basic pan sauces are what you would make after roasting meat or poultry, and are generally made to accompany the main dish that you've prepared.

    Pan sauces can be as thin or as thick as you like them, pending your decision to add flour, cornstarch or a roux of butter and flour. They require little more than removing the meat you've cooked from the pan; adding a liquid (like water, broth or wine) to help release any browned pieces of meat that stuck to the bottom of the pan; seasoning, and reducing to enhance flavor.

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  • Basic béchamel sauce scares a lot people because they're afraid of cooking dairy over heat and curdling the whole batch. However, it's really a very approachable sauce made with only milk, butter and flour.

    Once the sauce comes together you can flavor it with almost anything (Parmigiano Reggiano, lemon zest and nutmeg work well). Its pale color looks best when spooned over dark or vibrant foods like meat or asparagus.

    Since béchamel sauce is richer and thicker than a pan sauce, it holds up well to being pooled beside a main ingredient.

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  • Pesto is good for so much more than pasta, and because its main ingredient is basil, its bright green color is gorgeous on fish or chicken.

    Pesto can also be used thick or thin, so whether you make it at home or buy some prepared, think about what you're going to use it for. Left thicker, it's a heartier sauce. Thinned with olive oil it can be used to marinate chicken or pooled beneath it, drizzled gently over fish or spooned on grilled vegetables.

Bertolli® Basics

If you're still too intimidated to make your own sauce (or if you don't have time), all of Bertolli's® Traditional Red Sauces or creamy Alfredo Sauces pair well with any cut of pasta for easy, authentic dinners for your family.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for which sauce goes best with what food, since both poultry and red meat can be enhanced by either. But, here are a few tips to get you started:

If you're tired of eating chicken breasts the same old way, wake them up using Bertolli® Four Cheese Rosa. Pool a few spoonfuls of warmed-up sauce on your plate, then place the grilled, baked or breaded chicken breast on top. Finish with about two tablespoons of sauce over the chicken and garnish with basil or parsley leaves.

For tomato-enhanced chicken, remember that your favorite Chicken Parmigiano or Cacciatore recipes can be an easy weeknight special when using one of Bertolli® Vineyard Premium Collection sauces. The same goes for your family's meatball recipes, beef roasts and braises that require slow-cooking in a red sauce. With sauces so authentic, you won't miss homemade.


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  • Not sure if you need a sauce? Consider what you're serving. Sauces go well with meats, poultry and fish because they add moisture and coat forkfuls evenly, lending to a more appealing mouthful. Visually, they can fill up space on a barren plate by being pooled beside or drizzled over dishes.
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  • Thickeners reduce your sauce's potency because most of them (flour, cornstarch) have no flavor. An alternative? Reduce it over heat, which concentrates the flavor.
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  • Use salt. Some carbohydrates reduce a sauce's perceptible saltiness. So, if you're adding cornstarch or flour to thicken your liquid, don't underestimate the importance of salt...even if you've used salted butter.
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  • For an easy way to drizzle thin chocolate sauce, a puréed berry sauce or even thinned-out whipped cream on a dessert plate, transfer into a plastic squeeze bottle like the ketchup containers found at diners. The tips can be snipped to vary the thickness of the spout, and they provide improved accuracy if you want to spell something on a plate or otherwise decorate the edge. No squeeze bottle? Use a zip-locking plastic sandwich bag with the corner cut off.
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  • Turn vegetables from boring to beautiful with any Bertolli® Alfredo Sauce. If added just before serving green beans, asparagus, grilled tomatoes—even potatoes—a few spoons of warmed sauce will boost the flavor with no extra hassle.